Book Review: ‘Construing the Cross: Type, Sign, Symbol, Word, Action’, by Frances M. Young

Construing the Cross: Type, Sign, Symbol, Word, Action‘, by Frances M. Young

Cascade Books, 160 pp. $19.00

Construing the Cross, Frances Young’s Didsbury Lecture, is a slim volume packed with insights theological, anthropological, biblical, and whatever-else-ical. Do not be fooled by the size of this book – there’s more meat here than in many substantially larger tomes.

Young’s goal here is fairly simple and is given away in the title: she’s taking us on a journey through the various ways that the cross was construed in early Christian thought before the onset of ‘atonement theories’ (while not exactly a bogeyman, ‘atonement theories’ function as a bit of negative here). Young’s first look focuses on the Passover as the primary way in which Christians thought of the cross. Patristic and biblical texts are the key sources here, and Young cites Melito as drawing deeply from the Exodus narrative to show that the Gospel itself is a parallel to the Exodus. For Melito, Christ is:

…the one who clad death in shame, and, as Moses did to Pharaoh, made the devil grieve…This is the one who delivered us from slavery to freedom, from darkness into light, from death into life, from tyranny into an eternal Kingdom, and made us a new priesthood, and a people everlasting for himself. (p. 6)

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Wright, Wisdom, and the Return from Exile to Zion

In ‘Paul and the Faithfulness of God’, N.T. Wright spends a good number of pages developing his return-from-exile theme. There’s a lot to this and I think most of it is spot-on. Some time ago, however, I read an interesting blog post, where the author noted a lack of textual support for one of Wright’s claims – namely, that in Ben Sirach and Wisdom of Solomon, the mode of YHWH’s return to Zion was that of Wisdom (let’s call this the Wisdom Return Thesis – WRT). What I want to do is look closely at Wright’s claim from a textual standpoint as well as from more of a meta-level, since he grounds a good deal of WRT in its prevelance in second-temple literature, and these two books in particular. What is Wright’s specific claim? On page 655, he lays it out  clearly: Continue reading

Theology’s Biblical Dilemma

I intended this post to be a sequel of sorts to my previous post on Karl Barth and N.T. Wright, this time focusing on their thinking on Scripture. It may prove a bit easier, however, to skip the formal differences and head right into a case study – namely, bringing the two into conversation on the topic of Biblical authority and revelation to see if, together, a view of Scripture can be maintained that respects the actual dynamics of Scripture without relegating it to the status of a lesser revelation than Jesus, as is a common fad right now. The dilemma is this: how can both the Bible and Jesus be affirmed as divine revelation without one taking precedence in quality over the other? If Jesus is the fullest revelation of God, then logically, Scripture’s status is diminished, and if this is the case, how can Scripture be authoritative in any real sense?.

Both Wright and Barth see the authority of Scripture as being fundamentally mediated. Wright is explicit on this matter and frames his understanding of the authority of Scripture as the ‘authority of the triune God exercised through Scripture’.

‘…we recognize that it (the authority of Scripture) can have Christian meaning only if we are referring to scripture’s authority in a delegated or mediated sense from that which God himself possesses and that which Jesus possesses as the risen Lord and Son of God, the Immanuel.’ (N.T. Wright, ‘Scripture and the Authority of God’, p. 23)

He fleshes this out further by locating Scripture not within the context of God’s saving action (the more technical term being ‘the economy of salvation’) in history, but instead locating it within God’s redeeming action for the world (or universe, cosmos, whatever term you prefer) as a whole:

‘”The authority of Scripture” is thus a sub-branch of several other theological topics: the mission of the church, the work of the Spirit, the ultimate future hope and the way it is anticipated in the present, and of course the nature of the church.’ (p. 27-28)

Wright thus secures the role of Scripture and its authority within the whole of God’s redemptive actions, which are fundamentally trinitarian in nature. This is further fleshed out by placing the ‘word of God’ within the life and mission of the church. The word of God in this sense is the story of Israel and God, the climax of which is the story of Jesus. Jesus is, then, in a sense the true story of Israel as well as its fulfillment. Wright further notes that this story carries power – God’s power to save – as the means by which the Spirit worked in the life of the church:

‘Here we have the roots of a fully Christian theology of Scriptural authority: planted firmly in the soil of the missionary community, confronting the powers of the world with the news of the Kingdom of God, refreshed and invigorated by the Spirit, growing particularly through the preaching and teaching of the apostles, and bearing fruit in the transformation of human lives as the start of God’s project to put the whole cosmos to rights. God accomplished all these things, so the early church believed, through the “word”: the story of Israel now told as reaching its climax in Jesus, God’s call to Israel now transmuted into God’s call to his renewed people.’ (p. 50)

We see that for Wright, the concept of Biblical authority cannot be divorced from either the triune God, the place of Scripture within God’s redemptive action, or the life of the church. The Scriptures form the narrative which, fulfilled in Jesus raised by the Spirit, shape and form the church. Put simply, the Biblical story is fulfilled by Jesus, whose story is Israel’s story, which the church is called to live out. There can be no separation of revelation here: everything is here connected, and there is no greater or lesser revelation. For Wright, a simple ‘Scripture is a lesser revelation, Jesus is the ultimate revelation’, won’t do.

Karl Barth’s theology of revelation is well-known (for a brilliant summary head here) and so I won’t recapitulate it too much here – instead I’ll focus specifically on how his notion of revelation cashes out in terms of Biblical authority. Barth, like Wright, argues for a concept of authority that is both mediated and delegated and finds its place in the life of the church. Both seek to avoid a ‘magic book’ concept of authority. Like Wright, Barth does not distinguish between greater and lesser kinds of revelation, because, like Wright, he grounds the status of revelation with the triune God. Kevin Diller expounds this point at length in ‘Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma‘, where he treats Christian Smith’s appropriation of Barth in his book ‘The Bible Made Impossible‘:

‘Barth never seperates or stratifies revelation into kinds. There is no such thing in his thinking as a division between a more real, truthful and authentic revelation on the one hand and a less real, truthful and authentic revelation on the other. Barth is emphatic about this. Revelation is always and only God’s transforming self-disclosure in the gift of faith. We can distinguish aspects to God’s revealing action, but they correspond to the Trinity and are therefore distinguishable but inseperable…it is indeed impossible on Barth’s view of revelation to suggest that revelation in Christ is any different from revelation in Scripture.’ (p. 267-268)

Here we have a potential point of convergence: by grounding revelation and Scripture in the truine God, both Wright and Barth secure a high place for both without resorting to a ‘magical book’ view of authority, inspiration, or whatever. By grounding Scripture and authority in Israel’s story, made true and fulfilled in the life and story of Jesus, the embodiment of God and his redeeming action, raised by the Spirit, Wright can articulate a view of authority that avoids the problems of lesser/greater revelation when it comes to Scripture and Jesus. Barth, by placing revelation firmly within the context of God’s self-revelation and trinitarian life, can affirm the same – that while distinctions in form can indeed be made, there are no distinctions quality when it comes to revelation. While avoiding a ‘magical book’ view of the Bible and a static, overly-propositionalist view of revelation, Wright and Barth are both able to place Scripture in its proper context within God’s triune life and the life of the church and thereby give a solid answer to theology’s biblical dilemma.

There are issues, here, however, for these two ideas which take us somewhat abroad from the immediate topic of the post. For Wright, it can be asked if his scheme really does avoid the pitfall over greater/lesser revelation. Given that Jesus fulfilled the story of Israel, can it truly be said to have a non-lesser status? For Barth, if God’s revelation isn’t in the text but only made known to us by faith, exactly how does that cash out in terms of actual exegesis? If revelation isn’t in the text, does one simply wait to be struck by the Spirit? How would one really know if the Spirit moved/spoke/acted on them? These are two immediate issues that crop up and should be carefully thought through – but the potential for a unified answer from Wright and Barth on the question of Scripture, authority and revelation is certainly worth doing the theological work.

Notes on Stephen’s Speech

– Two things should be noted right off the bat: it’s the longest single speech in the New Testament, and it doesn’t jive to well with a lot of the other New Testament in terms of critique – Stephen is much harsher in his condemnation of the temple than Luke is, for example.

– The two main passages of Scripture that Stephen quotes are Amos 5:25-27 (in verses 42-43) and Isaiah 66:1-2 (in verses 49-50. Respectively, these deal with the themes of idolatry and God using the world as a footstool – i.e., not contained in a house built by hands. I think from these two specific quotations and the general theme of the speech, it can reasonably be assumed that Stephen saw the temple as not only superfluous in light of Christ but as totally unnecessary and even wrong from the very beginning. The entire temple apparatus simply allows the idolatry that Stephen takes to be part and parcel of the Hebrew people a greater reign.

– Being rather convinced by Wright’s thesis that the temple at the time of Jesus was more or less a talisman of a violent and nationalistic religion, I think it can Stephen’s speech can also be reasonably seen as a critique of Jewish privilege. Stephen traces a lineage of turning from God and his oracles in v. 38-41 – and note that it is the oracles of God that Paul connects with the advantage or privilege of the Jew. Stepehen also effectively turns the tables on his accusers by arguing that in their betrayal and murder of Jesus, they were the ones who broke the law as delivered by angels (an invocation which establishes its legitimacy). So, whereas Paul points to the receiving of the oracles of God as a privilege or advantage of the Jew, Stephen sees the idolatry present in his fathers as causing them to reject these oracles. Being also generally convinced of Wright’s thesis that a problem with the Judaism of the time was that it had developed into a closed-off ethnic religion or identity, I think that Stephen can be taken to be arguing that the privilege of the Jew had turned into a hoarding of the oracles of God.

– More evidence here could be cited from the examples Stephen gives of God’s revealing and workings in Hebrew history – such revelations are not restricted to certain people in the Holy Land but rather wherever God’s faithful servants can be found – Egypt, Mesopotamia, wherever. In his narrative, Stephen seems to connect the building of the temple with the stagnation of Israel’s religion.

– A very interesting transition occurs between v. 39 and v. 51 – in the former, Stephen refers to ‘our fathers’, who refused to obey Moses. In the latter, Stephen refers to ‘your fathers’, who resist the Holy Spirit in the same way that Stephen’s accusers do. What I think is happening here is summed up by Bruce Metzger in ‘The New Testament, It’s Background, Growth and Content’:

‘The reader can detect in the speech overtones of a growing awareness that the new faith could not be limited by Judaism and that it was the true goal of Hebrew history. The seeds of theological revolution lie within Stephen’s challenge of the alleged privilege of the Jews, and the logic implicit in his argument opened the way for a Christian mission to the Gentiles. In short, Stephen stands for a Christianity that was coming to realize its independence and self-sufficiency and was beginning to feel that it must either absorb Judaism or break with it.’ (p. 189)

Some Thoughts on the Calling of Abraham’s Family

I’m reading ‘A New Heaven and a New Earth’ by J. Richard Middleton, and therein he makes the Wright-esque claim that Abraham’s family was called to ‘set things to rights’ or some variant on that theme – to paraphrase Middleton, it is through Abraham’s family that the nations will be blessed or find blessing. While there is indeed a sense in which this is true, I do not think that it is true in the sense that Middleton wants it to be, namely that such blessings and calling relate to salvation.

As I read the verses which Middleton cites in defense of this thesis (Gen. 12:1-3, 18:17-18, 22:17-18, 26:4-5, 28:14) I’m struck by a couple of things, the first of which is this: the promises to Abraham from God are all that those in his seed or in him (in Abraham) will be blessed. I see this, off the top of my head, as pointing to or anticipating when Jews and Gentiles will be part of the one family of Abraham and not a declaration that Abraham’s family is the agent by which redemptive blessings flow.

Secondly, I really see very little evidence that Abraham’s family was called to set to rights the problem of Adam’s sin or undo Adam’s sin. I honestly think one has to strain fairly hard to really get that from the Genesis texts – the overwhelming sense I get is that Abraham’s family is called to be a witness/light to the nations, not the bearers of salvation. Salvation will come through Israel, not from Israel. In a word, Abraham’s family is not called to be the agent of salvation but a light  to the nations and a witness to the One God – neither of which is the same as being the world’s saviour.

There is, it seems to me, an eschatalogical element here in that, as noted above, the promises of God to Abraham look ahead to when in the fullness of time both Jew and Gentile will be brought into the one family of God. These are cursory sketches and stand in need of development but the basic gist should be clear: the thesis that Israel is the means by which the world is set to rights at the very least can be challenged on the grounds of textual evidence

For a more developed critique along these lines, see this helpful summary of Hurtado and Witherington’s thoughts.

A Few Thoughts On My Neighbor

This post is also a comment, in reply to Alastair Roberts take on the prophet Oded and the Good Samaritan (there remains a lot of work to be done here, as this is a very rough sketch):

Immediately preceeding Levitucs 19:18, which Jesus quotes in the parable (as you noted) is a series of injunctions of Israel’s practice of justice – treating the poor fairly, no injustice in judgement, no stealing, no swearing, fairly well-known moral teachings. These sayings/teachings/whatever have a fairly universal quality – I have a hard time seeing these commands to properly execute justice as pertaining to *only* Israelites/covenant people.

Having said that, I fully agree that the background question relates to the question of membership in the people of God. I don’t think it follows, though, that the status of ‘neighbor’ is restricted to those who are alienated (sp?) covenant members.

Following from that (my Barthianism is about to show – take that, Wright!) I think that all people are, in a sense, the people of God by virtue of God’s election of humanity in Christ. What follows from that is that while all people are elect, not all people accept said election, and hence resist (I strongly agree with Lewis when he says that hell is locked from the inside out) the grace of the covenant, and are hence alienated from the covenant. So I see there being a distinction between the people of God who are in the Messiah, and the people of God more broadly as those who are elected by God in his election of Christ. The former are charged with, as you said, restoring the alienated and wounded, who are the latter.

Those Links Tho

To start off, two articles on Biblical historicity – the Exodus and Jesus, respectively:

Did Jesus Exist? Searching for Evidence Beyond the Bible:

‘The sources normally discussed fall into three main categories: (1) classical (that is, Greco-Roman), (2) Jewish and (3) Christian. But when people ask whether it is possible to prove that Jesus of Nazareth actually existed, as John P. Meier pointed out decades ago, “The implication is that the Biblical evidence for Jesus is biased because it is encased in a theological text written by committed believers.2 What they really want to know is: Is there extra-Biblical evidence … for Jesus’ existence?”’

Was There an Exodus?:

‘Proofs exist in geometry, and sometimes in law, but rarely within the fields of biblical studies and archaeology. As is so often the case, the record at our disposal is highly incomplete, and speculation about cultural transmission must remain contingent. We do the most we can with the little we have, invoking plausibility more than proof. To be plain about it, the parallels I have drawn here do not “prove” the historical accuracy of the Exodus account, certainly not in its entirety. They do not prove that the text before us received its final form in the 13th century BCE. And they can and no doubt will be construed by rational individuals, lay and professional alike, in different ways.’

Atrium Carceri’s original soundtrack for the PC game ‘The Old City: Leviathan’ is outstanding and worth listening to immediately (and I recommend listening to it as a whole). Fans of the genre will recognize Atrium Carceri as one of the premier acts in dark ambient.

The Coast Guard’s Most Potent Weapon During Prohibition? Codebreaker Elizebeth Friedman:

‘To convict the accused, Woodcock had to link them to hundreds—if not thousands—of encrypted messages that passed between at least 25 separate ships, their shore stations, and the headquarters in New Orleans. Defense attorneys demanded to know how the government could prove the content of enciphered messages. How, for example, could a cryptanalyst know that “MJFAK ZYWKB QATYT JSL QATS QXYGX OGTB” translated to “anchored in harbor where and when are you sending fuel?”*

Elizebeth Friedman, the prosecution’s star witness, asked the judge to find a chalkboard.

Using a piece of chalk, she stood before the jury and explained the basics of cryptanalysis. Friedman talked about simple cipher charts, mono-alphabetic ciphers and polysyllabic ciphers; she reviewed how cryptanalysts encoded messages by writing keywords in lines of code, enclosing them with letter patterns that could be deciphered with the help of various code books and charts rooted in the schemes and charts of centuries past.’

The Scripture Principle in the Didache:

‘When teachers speak, therefore, they must speak in accordance with what has been said before–an utterly Pauline stance found already in Galatians 1. Thus Didache 11: “Whosoever, therefore, comes and teaches you all these things that have been said before, receive him.” The author presumes that his audience is capable of testing the teaching to which they are exposed by some other standard, namely, the standard of what they have already received (ταῦτα πάντα τὰ προειρημένα).’

Music’s Address:

‘“Music,” writes Roger Scruton (Soul of the World, 175) “addresses us from beyond the borders of the natural world” and thus “requires us to respond to a subjectivity that lies beyond the world of objects, in a space of its own.” It’s one of the intimations of a world outside the natural world describable by science.

But music is made of sounds, and sounds are vibrations, physical events. Scruton of course knows this, but his point is that there is something more to hearing music than there is to hearing sounds. Music is irreducible to the sounds that make it up.’

Moral Facts:

‘On the one hand, a moral fact is simply the fact that I am obliged to do something, and to deny that there is a fact of the matter here is a non-starter. You might as well deny that there are birds. Sure, I suppose you could make some abstruse taxonomic argument that birds are really just dinosaurs, but it has no power to work as a magical incantation to make parakeets vanish from cages or chicken disappear from my sandwich. If I want to walk out of the store with five pizzas and a tub of ice cream, I happen to know that I’m obliged to pay for them, to do so with dollars, and to wait in line to do so. Telling me that this is an ‘opinion’ is a failure to grasp both the situation I find myself in and the epistemological stance I have to it.’

The Theory-Ladeness of Observation:

‘…most importantly, it must be grasped that those who argue for the theory-ladeness of observation are not making the rather uncontroversial claim that different observers see the same thing but interpret what they see differently. Few would dispute that. Even the most avid foudationalist admits that of course holders of rival theories interpret the “data” differently, each in the light of his or her own theory. However, a foundationalist claims that before these rival interpretations begin, so to speak, both observers are “given” the same datum to interpret (in Latin, “datum” simply means “given”). A sufficient base of data will eventually enable a neutral judge to determine which interpretation best fits the data. What the thesis of theory-ladeness is claiming is that observers with different beliefs “see” or “experience” different things, before any interpretive process can begin. Thus observation by itself can never settle disputes between such rival systems of belief. Since there is no common datum against which to measure the acceptability of rival theories, the observations made by holders of different theories are said to be “incommensurable.”‘